Building a National Literature: The United States 1800-1890, RA Gross

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Content: 23 Building a National Literature: The United States 1800­1890 Robert A. Gross
There was no American literature in the nineteenth century. So said a chorus of British
and European critics of the new nation. "Literature the Americans have none ­ no native
literature . . . It is all imported," the Rev. Sydney Smith pronounced in the Edinburgh
Review. In 1820, Smith famously insulted American pride: "In the four quarters of the
globe, who reads an American book?" Two decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville was
obliged to agree. During his 1830s' tour of the United States, the liberal aristocrat
found much to admire about "democracy in America" but not its literary productions:
"The inhabitants of the United States have . . . at present, properly speaking, no litera-
ture." What did exist was best hidden from foreign guests. "If the American nation be
judged of by its literature," the English traveler Harriet Martineau concluded in 1837,
"it may be pronounced to have no mind at all." That verdict persisted, even as the
United States was rising to world power. In 1888, the English critic Matthew Arnold
echoed Sydney Smith. For all their industrial success and national wealth, Americans
were lacking in civilization: "In literature they have as yet produced little that is
Many Americans unhappily agreed. With high hopes for the Revolution, aspiring
poets had anticipated a "rising glory" of the arts in a free republic. That expansive
vision soon faded. Far from heeding Noah Webster's dictum that "America must be as
independent in literature as she is in politics," most writers in the early republic took
their cues from the former mother country. America remained a cultural colony of the
Old World well into the nineteenth century. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson summoned
the "American Scholar" to answer "the postponed expectation of the world." "We have
listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." This call for literary independence
was but one in a litany of complaints about native mediocrity heard throughout the
century. American literature was deemed inferior either because it failed to realize
European models or because it tried too hard to imitate them.
Perhaps the critics were looking in the wrong place. In the eighteenth century, lit-
erature carried a distinctive meaning it no longer bears today. Samuel Johnson defined
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it in 1756 as "learning," the acquisition of which required education in the Greek and
Roman classics. Learned men (and a few women) were the citizens of the republic of
letters, communicating freely across national borders to advance the "improvement" and
enlightenment of mankind. Every branch of knowledge invited their interest, from
"natural philosophy" (the progenitor of modern "science") to history and politics to
languages, rhetoric, and belles lettres (encompassing essays, drama, poetry, and fiction).
When Noah Webster embarked on the linguistic inquiries that culminated in his
monumental American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), he appealed to "the
Friends of Literature in the United States" for financial aid. "Similar undertakings in
Great Britain have been supported by contributions," he explained. Would not "the
lovers of learning" in America do the same "to enlarge the sphere of knowledge"?
Apparently not: Webster was in constant need of funds to carry on his scholarly project,
an experience shared by other literary men in his day and confirming the view that in
the absence of aristocratic patrons and well-endowed institutions, the Muses could not
thrive in the infant republic. In fact, Americans did establish diverse associations and
launch numerous journals to promote the progress of knowledge. Still, their reputation
was fixed, in Emerson's words, as "a people too busy" with business ever "to give to
letters" more than token regard.
If "letters" did have a future in the new nation, that lay in the wider field opened
up over the nineteenth century, when "literature" ended its narrow alliance with elite
learning and admitted into its ranks the entire body of writing produced in a time or
place. In the age of Enlightenment, men of letters competed to contribute to the world's
stock of knowledge. The agenda shifted with the currents of nationalism and democracy.
Now every Western nation claimed a distinctive character, given form in original works
of literature and art from the common life of its people. By this standard, Emerson
would identify the "English traits" of "strong common sense" and "mental materialism"
as characteristic of the nation that produced Chaucer and Shakespeare, Macaulay and
Dickens, while seeking the essence of American experience in the popular realm of "the
familiar" and "the low." This quest for national distinctiveness has shaped literary
history ever since. Until recently, critics have told the story of American literature as
the long struggle to find an original, authentic voice for the unprecedented realities of
experience in the New World. Such a narrative is suggested by the very title of this
chapter, "Building a National Literature." But book history alters the angle of vision.
It goes beyond the particular agendas that writers and historians attribute to books and
comprehends the wide array of interests and participants, the diversity of institutions,
and the host of cultural practices that were bound up in the world of print Americans
made, through their domestic engagements and their international entanglements, over
the nineteenth century. By these means and media, writers and readers carried on the
conversations among themselves and with the wider world that can appropriately be
called "American literature."
The United States embarked on independence with a print culture that was at once
local and cosmopolitan but hardly national. America's arrival on the world stage
was heralded in print, with the Declaration of Independence circulating in thirty
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newspapers and fourteen broadsides before it was even signed. The republic was depen-
dent on its constituent parts, the very news of its existence spread by a decentralized
network of printers among a loosely connected people. The success of the new nation
required better communications, and so the Federal Government that came into being
with the Constitution in 1789 set about promoting a greater sense of nationality.
Newspapers were central to that goal. "Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of
sentiments," James Madison wrote in 1791, "as good roads, domestic commerce, a free
press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people . . . is
equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits, and is favorable to liberty."
Under the fostering arm of government, the press enjoyed special privileges accorded
to no other genre of print. The Post Office Act of 1792 allowed newspapers to circulate
through the mail at cheap rates, subsidized by high charges on personal letters; books
were banned from the mailbags. Editors could also exchange issues at no cost, and they
were free to reprint whatever they pleased. Government put few obstacles in their way.
Liberty of the press was guaranteed by state and federal constitutions, and following
the storm over the 1798 Sedition Act, official efforts to regulate newspapers faded. In
contrast to Britain and France, the new republic eschewed the state powers customarily
employed to police opinion. In the Old World, heavy taxes on newspapers restricted
their circulation to an economic elite; in the United States, news was potentially acces-
sible to all. Subscriptions, to be sure, were costly ­ as much as ten dollars a year for a
daily, five for a weekly, the bill payable in advance ­ but copies were readily available
in coffee-houses and taverns, where it was common to see men sociably gathered, as
the poet Philip Freneau noticed, "to spit, smoke segars, drink apple whiskey, and read
the news." Politicians encouraged the habit by providing a variety of subsidies ­ printing
contracts, official advertising, and patronage jobs ­ to ensure the well-being of the press.
Thanks to all these measures, newspapers took on the character of public utilities, and
reading them became a conscientious act of citizenship. As early as 1800, the Portfolio
dubbed Americans "a nation of newspaper readers."
Serving both public purpose and private interest, newspapers proliferated at a diz-
zying pace up and down the coast and deep into the Western frontier, faster even than
the burgeoning population of the new nation. Some 200 papers circulated in 1800; a
quarter-century later, that figure had grown four-fold to 861, then swelled to 1,400 by
1840. Everywhere, except the rural South, where printers were seldom seen, the press
played an integral part in the conduct of business and politics. Like their eighteenth-
century predecessors, urban dailies supplied valuable commercial "intelligence" about
prices and markets far and near. They rightly called themselves "advertisers"; commonly,
half or more of these four-page sheets were given over to paid notices of goods and
services for sale.
The political columns of the press were no less devoted to salesmanship. At the dawn
of the republic, editors vowed to be "open to all parties but influenced by none," as the
Freeman's Journal of Philadelphia declared in its masthead, while the ambitious entre-
preneur John Fenno hastened from Boston to New York with the dream of founding a
"gazette of the United States" as official organ of the national establishment. But hardly
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had the new government gone into operation than it split into competing factions,
centered around Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, that developed after 1800
into full-fledged partisan bodies contending for power in Washington and the states.
Each party cultivated its own network of newspapers to carry on the contest in print;
from editorial offices functioning as party headquarters flowed the official messages
calculated to rally the faithful and win over the undecided. In election seasons, urban
advertisers and country gazettes made politics their main business, selling candidates
and platforms like any other product. Up to 1820, newspapers preferred to cloak their
partisanship in seemingly impartial language stressing the common good; in succeed-
ing decades, they took up the cudgels and waged the fight for Democrats and Whigs,
Anti-Masons, Know-Nothings, and Republicans without inhibition. Editors, more often
politicians than printers, denounced their rivals as scurrilous skunks, dirty dishcloths,
and "lickspittle tools" and brawled with them in the streets. Epithets and opinions were
the stuff of the party press in campaign mode.
Where was the news in these papers? It consisted chiefly of official documents ­ the
annual message of the president, laws enacted by state legislatures, proceedings of
political conventions, trial records ­ along with extracts from the foreign press, prices
current, and accounts of ships arriving and departing. From the 1820s on, editors com-
peted fiercely to be the first to put such items into print, employing schooners, pony
expresses, even carrier pigeons to win the race. But independent reporting was lacking.
Journalists did show initiative by attending sessions of Congress and taking steno-
graphic notes on the debates. Unfortunately for contemporaries and historians interested
in what exactly was said, such transcripts were not what the public read. Politicians
were accorded the right to review the notes and "improve" them before speeches went
into print ­ a practice known as "speaking to Buncombe" whereby the people's repre-
sentatives said one thing to their colleagues and another to their constituents. If national
"news" was bowdlerized in the press, events close to home could go missing entirely,
partly because everyone already knew them, but even more because such matters were
beside the point. Scattered across an extensive republic, local newspapers served to
connect readers to wider worlds beyond the community. They constituted a national
bulletin board, posting stories from all over the land. Noah Webster, an erstwhile editor
himself, was quick to discern the significance of this process. Newspapers, he observed
in the very first issue of his American Minerva in December 1793, were "common instru-
ments of social intercourse, by which the citizens of this vast Republic constantly dis-
course and debate with each other."
The boundaries of American Journalism expanded dramatically with the birth of the
penny press. In September 1833, a new era of mass communications dawned with the
inauguration of Benjamin Day's New York Sun. This brash upstart adapted recent inno-
vations in the London press to American circumstances and challenged the business
model for an urban newspaper. It was soon followed by a host of imitators in New York
and beyond, most notably, James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald (1835) and Horace
Greeley's New York Tribune (1841). Unlike the high-priced "mercantile advertisers"
aimed at New York's political and business elite, the penny papers catered to the broad
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middle and working classes of the surging city. The papers were tiny: at 81/2 by 11
inches, the Sun easily folded into a man's pocket, whereas its established rivals, three
times that size, were "blanket sheets." They were cheap, a penny an issue (soon raised
to two cents) and available in single copies hawked by newsboys on the streets. They
were independent in politics and populist in style. And they promised to print "all
the news of the day." This was an entirely new formula for commercial publishing.
With its handy format, low price, and appealing contents, the penny press gathered up
readers en masse and sold them to advertisers for huge profits. The Herald's daily cir-
culation climbed to 60,000 by the eve of the Civil War, an achievement made possible
by the introduction of steam-powered printing presses and machine-made paper.
Popular journalism was at once a cause and consequence of the Industrial Revolution.
In the hands of Bennett, a Scottish immigrant who had labored long and futilely in
the party press, the modern tabloid emerged in its quintessential form, capturing all
the "human interest" of the day: crime, violence, sex, high society, sports (boxing
matches, horse races, yachting regattas), Wall Street, show business, and celebrities. But
the Herald did not ignore politics, which Bennett pursued as aggressively as he sniffed
out scandal. Seizing on the invention of the telegraph, Herald correspondents broke the
news of American victories in the Mexican war and the discovery of gold in California;
the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo surfaced in the paper the same day
as the US Senate received the confidential document from President Polk. (Furious at
the leak, senators ordered the arrest of the Herald reporter and demanded to know his
source ­ to no effect; after a month, the defiant newsman was released.) The scoops and
sensations brought to public view in the popular press constituted a distinctive contri-
bution to American literature. In the pages of the penny papers unfolded the daily life
of a great metropolis with "a variety, a piquancy, a brilliancy, an originality," according
to Bennett, "that will entirely outstrip the worn out races of Europe, who have been
degenerating for the last twenty generations." Capturing the excitement, novelty, and
dangers of an ever-changing city, these heralds and tribunes of the people reflected
urban society to itself.
The popular appetite for news was insatiable. In 1869, the British journalist Edward
Dicey characterized the American as "a newspaper-reading animal." A periodical existed
for virtually every breed of genus Americanus. Where the party and penny press targeted
readers in particular cities and towns, other enterprises identified groups with special-
ized interests and fashioned them into regional and national audiences. Vocational
publications abounded, with farmers getting the most attention and advice. No self-
respecting denomination of Christians was without its house organ. Temperance advo-
cates drank from the Fountain and enlisted in the Cold Water Army; health reformers
looked to the Sanitarium; abolitionists championed the cause of the slave in the Eman-
cipator and the Liberator. Starting with Freedom's Journal in 1827, African Americans
fought not only for their own liberty but for the Rights of All (as the paper was renamed).
The Cherokee Nation advertised its progress in civilization in the bilingual Cherokee
Phoenix, and although that effort failed to stop forcible removal from Georgia, the paper,
true to its original name, was reborn in Oklahoma as the Cherokee Advocate. There were
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"amulets," "garlands," "mirrors," and "toilets" for ladies (and an Agitator for women's
rights); "assistants" and "companions" for mothers; "friends" for orphans and youth.
Alas, "sporting papers" like the Flash and the Whip, modeled on English originals, led
young men astray with titillating tales of vice in the nation's cities and detailed guides
on where to find it.
Those preferring the safer precincts of fiction could turn to the "story papers" that
flourished in the mid-1840s, when canny businessmen took advantage of a loophole in
the postal laws and began churning out cheap editions of foreign novels in newspaper
format. In the spirit of James Gordon Bennett, the editors of Brother Jonathan and New
World in New York and Universal Yankee Nation in Boston (which claimed to be "the
largest paper in all creation") won the hearts of "the Reading Million" and threatened
the interests of established publishers by snapping up the latest works of Charles
Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and other popular writers as soon as they arrived on
the transatlantic steamers and getting them into print well before they appeared as
books. "We are friends of the people," boasted the New World, "and our motto is `The
greatest good to the greatest number.' " Though that practice was soon halted, news-
papers never stopped running fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin first
created a sensation in the anti-slavery weekly National Era, where it was serialized in
forty installments in 1851. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, launched by an English
engraver-turned-publisher in New York, played a prominent part in popularizing such
novelists as Wilkie Collins in the Civil War decades and after, while literary syndicates
marketed works by the leading American and British writers to newspapers all over
the country during the last two decades of the century. Thanks to the post office, the
railroad, and the telegraph, the newspaper could chart diverse paths ­ local, regional,
national, or perhaps all at the same time ­ in the building of a literary marketplace.
In histories of American literature, book publishing usually holds pride of place and
with good reason. Books carried a cultural prestige lacking in periodicals. Whether
bound in leather or cloth, they were made to last, embodying "timeless" knowledge
across the generations; newspapers, by contrast, were typically as short-lived as the
information they contained. Ephemera comprised the bulk of items issued by colonial
printers: almanacs, broadsides, newspapers, pamphlets in political and religious debates,
primers, and spellers. For their books, Americans went to London, Edinburgh, and
Dublin in a habit that survived the Revolution. It was simply cheaper to import the
latest literature from Britain than to patronize the native press, and it signified a cos-
mopolitan desire to participate in the international republic of letters. For that situation
to change, entrepreneurs would have to find new ways of conducting the book business,
and consumers would have to alter their literary tastes.
In the early 1790s, the printer Mathew Carey, a radical Irish nationalist who had
fled prosecution for sedition by the English authorities and set up shop in Philadelphia
with an endorsement from Benjamin Franklin, devised an ingenious route into publish-
ing. With the backing of well-heeled merchants, he ordered thousands of pounds worth
of books from several leading British booksellers, stocked a store on Market Street, and
turned the inventory to immediate profit. Carey's ambitions went beyond the import
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trade. Instead of paying his suppliers, he pocketed the money and invested it in two
risky ventures, expensive reprints of William Guthrie's New System of Geography (1786)
and Oliver Goldsmith's An History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), which had
gone through multiple editions in London and Dublin. Carey aimed to cover his costs
by signing up advance subscribers, some 1,200 in all, for Guthrie's two volumes, which
were adapted for American readers by the Philadelphia astronomer David Rittenhouse
and Massachusetts geographer Jedidiah Morse. So ambitious was this design that Carey
was obliged to give up printing altogether and concentrate on marketing his wares ­ no
easy task, as it turned out, since the ready audience for the project in the Middle States
and New England was quickly tapped out and the newspaper advertisements Carey
placed brought in few others. Facing an imminent crisis of debt, Carey seized on the
expedient of hiring a footloose Anglican parson named Mason Locke Weems to peddle
his books wherever they could be sold. A born salesman, Weems traveled throughout
the Chesapeake, winning over the gentry with visions of "Worlds upon Worlds" about
"to burst upon their senses" from the pages of Guthrie. The sales pitch did more than
rescue Carey from financial ruin. It pointed up the opportunities and the obstacles in
publishing books for a people dispersed across the countryside of an extensive republic.
In the bid to bring books to readers, rather than wait for them to come into his store,
Carey learned a crucial lesson: picking titles was only part of a publisher's task; market-
ing and selling them demanded equal attention.
Carey's example was repeated by other printers-turned-publishers in the 1790s, not
all of whom obtained working capital by expropriating British creditors. The patriot
printer Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Massachusetts, launched his publishing career with
a line of "toy" books for children, reprinted from London originals, and with substantial
quarto and folio editions of the Bible. However they entered the business, these entre-
preneurs built American publishing on the recycling of British and European books.
This specialty was made profitable by the Copyright Act of 1790, which, in keeping
with the Constitution's mandate to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,"
granted authors "the exclusive right to their Writings" for a limited term of fourteen
years (renewable, in the author's lifetime, for another fourteen) ­ a provision modeled
on English precedent (the 1710 Statute of Anne, the first copyright law in the world).
There was a catch: only American citizens (and resident aliens) need apply. Foreigners
could claim neither protection against nor payment for unauthorized reprints of
their works by the likes of Carey and Thomas. In effect, the vast body of British and
European Literature constituted a public domain free for the taking. Like squatters on
the frontier, booksellers seized the opportunity; from the 1790s on, the bestselling
books in London were being reprinted in the United States within one or two years.
The loose copyright laws fostered a "culture of reprinting" that made the American
reading public the largest and most up-to-date in the Western world. In Britain, where
the "Intellectual property regime" tightened sharply in the early nineteenth century,
publishers exploited their legal monopoly over current titles and kept book prices high
and edition sizes low. As a result, the great works of the Romantic age, especially the
poetry and novels of Walter Scott, gained a wider audience across the Atlantic than in
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their native land. With no legal obligations to foreign authors, American booksellers
saved on royalties, and they cut costs further by altering texts at will. In the course of
reprinting, "three-decker" English novels shrank to two volumes (and often two-in-one),
shorn of unnecessary verbiage. One Boston publisher had no apologies for condensing
Scott's Waverley novels: "there is a great deal of rubbish ­ such as the long introduc-
tions &c." Every branch of knowledge, from theology to biography to natural history,
suffered such cavalier treatment. In 1820, 70 percent of the titles issued in the United
States were pirated from overseas; three decades later, following a great expansion of
original American publishing, that figure remained a substantial 43 percent. Even with
all those reprints in circulation, Americans had not lost their taste for imports. Serious
learning still carried an Old World lineage. Well into the nineteenth century, book
collectors, colleges, and library societies provided a sturdy market for British books,
which such businessmen as George Palmer Putnam serviced by setting up quarters in
London as agent for customers back home. In similar fashion, prosperous Americans
were accustomed to celebrate Christmas by presenting loved ones with fancy gift books
from England. Far from retreating before American books, the import trade boomed,
growing nearly tenfold over the middle decades of the century.
British models shaped virtually every aspect of American publishing during its for-
mative decades. Technology came from abroad, as did the craftsmen trained to use it.
What books and periodicals Americans did not import or reprint they imitated and
made their own. Many genres ­ the evangelical magazine, the gift book, the picturesque
"tour," the illustrated weekly, even the Valentine writer ­ originated in the Old World,
then spread to the New, where they won large followings. In one crucial respect the
fledgling book trade departed from the norm. Unlike the highly concentrated business
of London and Paris, publishing developed as an infant industry in diverse cities and
towns, from Boston to Charleston on the coast and west to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Decentralization was due both to the transportation barriers obstructing a national
market and to the economic opportunities afforded by the copyright laws. Anybody
could enter the field, issue a new title, or reprint an existing one by a foreign writer, so
long as he had the capital to hire printer and binder and the willingness to assume the
financial risk. But how to get books to potential readers beyond a locality? Publishers
combined forces to enlarge the geographical scope of bookselling, while regulating
regional and national competition. In emulation of an English practice known as "cour-
tesy of trade," they devised a rule for reprinting: whoever first issued a foreign text was
its rightful owner, notwithstanding the absence of copyright. Under this compact, a
single reprint of an English work could circulate throughout the nation, free from
competing editions. Booksellers, like newspaper editors, would exchange publications
with one another, thereby increasing and diversifying their stock. Or they might join
together in co-publishing ventures and divide up the territory for sales. Other methods
of dissemination were to purvey books on commission, supply them at standard dis-
counts, establish branch stores, and send traveling salesmen into the countryside. These
cooperative arrangements rested upon a shared sense of identity and common interests.
Splitting off, like Carey, from printers and devoting themselves to publishing and
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selling books, the leading figures in the book trade cultivated a collective image as
urban gentlemen, promoting the economy and culture of the republic. In reality, they
were following in the well-marked trail of English stationers, collaborating to uphold
prices, curb competition, and limit risks.
The pace of change was actually set outside the established book trade. From the
1820s to the 1850s, the leading agents of the "benevolent empire" ­ the American Bible
Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union ­ produced
and distributed millions of pious pamphlets and books. Intent on propagating the word
and winning converts for Christ, these religious publishers employed stereotype plates
and steam-powered presses well in advance of their commercial counterparts. But deliv-
ering the divine message to needy souls proved a more difficult challenge. The benevo-
lent societies relied on a network of local auxiliaries to finance and distribute their
publications, and therein lay the problem. Rich, respectable communities, abounding
in professed Christians, were quick to answer the call, while hardscrabble frontier settle-
ments went unserved. The prevailing localism of American life circumscribed the reach
of philanthropy. To overcome those limits, the national agencies enlisted an evangelical
army of divinity students and ministers willing to work for minimal pay and deployed
them to the dark corners of the land. Their mission was to be traveling salesmen for
the Lord, going from door to door handing out Bibles and tracts to starving souls at
whatever price, if any, they could afford. Employing these colporteurs brought addi-
tional complications: they had to be recruited, trained, supervised, paid, and held to
account. By the 1850s, the benevolent societies were operating as modern corporate
bureaucracies, their central headquarters overseeing a chain of regional offices that
directly employed scores of agents in the field. Ironically, they did so in order to combat
the immoral influence of the literary marketplace, which supplied people with what
they wanted in this life, not what they needed for eternal salvation. Reversing that
equation, the tract and Bible societies reinforced older habits of reading. Inside the
peddlers' packs were the steady sellers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century divinity
­ Baxter's Call, Alleine's Alarm, Flavel's Touchstone ­ along with newer evangelical titles
like The Dairyman's Daughter, nearly all the products of English pens. In urgent matters
of the spirit, numerous Christians still found inspiration in the mother country.
The transformation of commercial publishing developed in tandem with the broader
economy. From the 1820s to the Panic of 1837, the United States experienced a long
wave of sustained growth, bringing unprecedented prosperity to a burgeoning middle
class and swelling demand for consumer goods, including books. The changes stirred
the book trade, whose ranks were still small and scattered in various cities, chiefly
Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but with outposts along the trade routes to the
West. Just as newspapers raced for the latest news from Europe, so booksellers hastened
to reprint the most popular works in London. Driving this enterprise was the craze for
the historical romances of Walter Scott, which gave a new respectability to reading
fiction. No longer could publishers afford to wait and see if a title sold well enough in
England to merit reprinting. With speed of the essence, booksellers paid to obtain
advance sheets from London ­ a compensation of sorts to the publishers and writers
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being pirated. The "author of Waverley" and his imitators appeared in print as soon as
they arrived in harbor. Courtesy of trade dissolved. Publishers invaded each other's
territory with rival editions of the same work, only to find themselves ultimately out-
flanked by the story papers, which nearly ruined the trade. There was no alternative
but to satisfy the demand. The key to success lay in publishing new books. Mathew
Carey, who had built his firm on the solid foundation of reprints and the Bible (which
he kept in standing type and reissued as warranted), could not fathom why his son and
successor was expanding the list of publications so rapidly. "There is nothing on earth
worse than an old stock of books," the son patiently explained. "Five-sixths of the whole
sales are of books manufactured within the year." Even that was not enough to beat
the competition. Carey & Lea battled for dominance with the Harper Brothers for a
decade; ultimately, the Harpers won. In a striking pattern of concentration, Manhattan
emerged as the publishing capital of the nation, followed by Philadelphia, Boston, and
The new business model reorganized publishing along modern lines. With flexibility
and speed crucial to success in the competitive marketplace, the leading firms embraced
technological innovation. Stereotyping, which preserved cast type on metal plates,
allowed for printing on demand; firms could now reproduce works in smaller or larger
lots, in response to changing needs. Papermaking machines and steam presses lowered
costs, expanded output, and accelerated production. Even the centuries-old art of binding
was mechanized. Taken together, these inventions transformed the appearance of books.
Attractively packaged in cloth covers, illustrated with engravings, and neatly printed in
large editions, each year's titles from companies like Boston's Ticknor & Fields, the
industry leader in design, arrived, for the first time in book history, as uniform com-
modities on the market. It thus became easy to assign them fixed prices. Distribution
was regularized in turn. Older cooperative arrangements gave way to an impersonal
division of labor, as most publishers ceased to be old-style "booksellers." Their special-
ized business was to organize the process of publication, bringing works into print at
their own expense and risk and then selling them wholesale to jobbers and retailers
nationwide. Thanks to the railroad, which extended steadily in the Northeast from the
1830s on and completed its transcontinental journey in 1869, a national book-trade
system gradually emerged. From grand offices in Manhattan and other publishing
centers issued an ever-expanding volume of books ­ some 1,350 in the year before the
Civil War ­ to be disseminated across the country by wholesale jobbers, traveling sales-
men, and retail shops. The independent bookstore was the hub of the system. In every
major city and town, shopping for books became a convenient, everyday experience.
Sarah Payson Willis Parton was a prominent beneficiary of these changes. Better
known by her pen name Fanny Fern, Parton achieved celebrity and riches as a newspaper
columnist and novelist after years of struggling as a single mother to support herself
and three young children. Born in 1811, she came of age with the press, witnessing in
her own family the changing practice of journalism and the opening of new opportuni-
ties for commercial writing. Her grandfather had edited a patriot newspaper in Boston
during the Revolutionary War; her father had enlisted in the fight against federalism
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The United States 1800­1890
as editor of the Eastern Argus in Portland, Maine, before giving up politics for religion and starting one of America's earliest religious newspapers, the Boston Recorder; her older brother, Nathaniel P. Willis, fashioned a literary career as an urbane poet and genteel magazine editor. Yet, when financial disaster struck, the young mother, first widowed, then divorced, was cast on her own resources, with no help from her literary kin. To make ends meet, she tried teaching and sewing, then picked up the pen, submitting articles in the early 1850s to several Boston family magazines (the Mother's Assistant, the True Flag, and the Olive Branch). For the sake of propriety, as well as to conceal her identity from inquisitive relatives, she adopted the pseudonym Fanny Fern. But her ambition burned bright, and it was rewarded by a shrewd publisher who collected her periodical pieces and issued them as a book with the title Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio. The volume was an instant success, selling 70,000 copies within a year. With a satirical wit that gave bite to sentimental prose, Fanny Fern won a huge following for her forthright pieces portraying the sufferings of poor children on New York's streets and the burdens of women in a patriarchal world. As a literary professional, she reveled in her large sales and loyal fans. Her novel Ruth Hall (1854), a roman-а-clef about a brave woman writer trying desperately to feed her children, culminates in a remarkable financial reward: 100 shares of stock in a local bank, worth $100 each. For pouring "her own heart's history" onto the pages of a book, the author has unknowingly earned a fortune of $10,000 ­ roughly what Parton herself had by then garnered in royalties from her books. That was far more than Parton's grandfather and father had ever gained from political and religious newspapers. The astonishing career of Fanny Fern is tribute to the forces behind the expansion of the literary marketplace by the mid-nineteenth century: the rise of national periodicals; the huge popularity of novels; the profitability of writing as a vocation, especially for women; the appeal of celebrities in popular culture; and the collaboration of author and publisher in creating and disseminating American literature. As much as anyone writing in her time, Sarah Parton demonstrated just how valuable intellectual property could be. Her financial coup was the product of the smart bargain she had made in selling the copyright to her works in exchange for a share of the revenues their publication brought in ­ a royalty agreement that remains standard practice today. Right from the start of the 1790 Copyright Act, Noah Webster had seen its economic uses, as had such female writers as the historian Hannah Adams and the feminist Judith Sargent Murray. So, too, had booksellers like Henry C. Carey, who was quick to buy the copyrights and finance the publications of James Fenimore Cooper and Catherine Maria Sedgwick in the 1820s and 1830s ­ investments that only gained in value after Congress extended the copyright term in 1831 to twenty-eight years (with a possible renewal for another fourteen). The complaints of literary nationalists notwithstanding, copyright facilitated the making of American literary careers. Both native and foreign works could come from the same presses.
It was not Fanny Fern, rooted in journalism and popular culture, whom the builders
of American literature had in mind during the late nineteenth century when they
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Robert A. Gross
established a canon of the nation's major writers, but rather a coterie of New England
males: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow, and a few lesser poets. The elite roster owed its existence to
Boston publisher James T. Fields, who had the inspiration to market these authors, all
issued by his company and its successors, as a rare breed of artists creating superior
works of the imagination that truly deserved recognition as "literature." Set apart from
ordinary books by their elegant format and gathered into standard editions and distin-
guished series, such masterpieces claimed the status of American "classics" on a par
with England's best. "It is literature . . . that holds in precipitation the genius of the
country," decreed Houghton Mifflin editor Horace Scudder, "and the higher the form
of literature, the more consummate the expression of that spirit . . ." This canonizing
frame of mind, with its sacral view of art and its ranking of writers in a finely graded
hierarchy, was well suited to the mood of the publishing establishment in the Gilded
Age. The heirs and successors to the leading family firms ­ Appleton, Harper's, Putnam,
Scribner's ­ liked to downplay the commercial aspects of their trade. Publishing for
them was not so much a business as a profession with a high cultural mission. Happily,
philanthropy coincided with self-interest. Through national magazines (Atlantic, Harp-
er's, Scribner's, Century), major publishing houses served the cause of literature, while
promoting their authors and advertising themselves.
It would be a mistake to idealize the publishing world of the late nineteenth century.
Like any entrenched interest, industry insiders treated newcomers as interlopers. In the
1870s and 1880s, another wave of cheap fiction rose, with the appearance of George
Munro's Seaside Library and similar series. Consisting of foreign novels reprinted in
magazine format, these books in disguise, like the earlier story papers, took advantage
of postal regulations and circulated as second-class mail. Mainstream firms denounced
this violation of courtesy, which Munro scorned as " `a right of possession' based primar-
ily on the principle, or lack of principle, of first grab." Only with US ratification of
international copyright in 1891 were the reprinters driven out of business. Even so, the
establishment continued to face stiff competition from subscription publishers, who did
a handsome business selling Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and other popular writers
by advance order to the vast countryside. Despite their huge sales, such volumes, sneered
spokesmen for the regular trade, were "absolutely worthless," with a "gaudy" appearance
belied by shoddy construction ­ "gorgeous binding, usually in very bad taste, thick but
cheap paper, outrageously poor wood-cuts, the largest type with the thickest leads."
Only the ignorant, seduced by silver-tongued salesmen, would accept such "humbug."
Clinging to a conservative vision of publishing as an elevated, gentlemanly affair, the
leading firms stood apart from the expanding mass market cultivated by the purveyors
of cheap books and the entrepreneurs of popular journalism.
Elite and mass media together strengthened national perspectives in American life
at the expense of the local and the cosmopolitan. The process of change made for a
more uniform, standardized print culture. It eroded the position of country editors as
mediators between small towns and the wider world. It turned once-proud printers with
dreams of owning their own presses into a permanent industrial working class. It
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The United States 1800­1890
converted the civic organs of the early republic into sales bureaus for consumer culture. And it gave vast license to the newspaper barons ­ Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst ­ who built on the legacy of James Gordon Bennett and fashioned the "yellow journalism" of the 1880s and 1890s. But national institutions of print also spread literary culture at home and abroad, winning grudging respect for American writers even in London, where Fanny Fern was pirated not long after her US debut. Ultimately, the advance of the publishing media enabled Americans to see themselves and the larger world through native eyes. In that rise to literary independence, we can also discern an ebbing of the cosmopolitanism that once was central to American print culture. In a globalized world, where old habits of cultural nationalism clash with the urgent need for international understanding, the making of American literature was not an unmixed blessing.
References and Further Reading
Amory, Hugh and Hall, David D. (2000) A History Greenspan, Ezra (2000) George Palmer Putnam: Rep-
of the Book in America, vol. I: The Colonial Book resentative American Publisher. University Park:
in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge Penn State University Press.
University Press.
Gross, Robert A. and Kelley, Mary (forthcoming
Baldasty, Gerald J. (1992) The Commercialization of 2008) A History of the Book in America, vol. II:
News in the Nineteenth Century. Madison: Univer- An Extensive Republic: Books, Culture, and Society
sity of Wisconsin Press.
in the New Nation, 1790­1840. Chapel Hill: Uni-
Barnhurst, Kevin G. and Nerone, John (2001) versity of North Carolina Press.
The Form of News: A History. New York: Henkin, David M. (1998) City Reading: Written
Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York.
Brodhead, Richard H. (1986) The School of Haw- New York: Columbia University Press.
thorne. New York: Oxford University Press.
Johanningsmeier, Charles A. (1997) Fiction and the
Brown, Candy Gunther (2004) The Word in the American Literary Marketplace: The Role of News-
World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and paper Syndicates in America, 1860­1900. New
Reading in America, 1789­1880. Chapel Hill: York: Cambridge University Press.
University of North Carolina Press.
John, Richard R. (1995) Spreading the News: The
Casper, Scott, Chaison, Joanne D., and Groves, American Postal System from Franklin to Morse.
Jeffrey D. (eds.) (2002) Perspectives on American Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Book History: Artifacts and Commentary. Amherst: Kaser, David (1957) Messrs Carey & Lea of
University of Massachusetts Press.
Philadelphia: A Study in the History of the Book-
--, Groves, Jeffrey D., Nissenbaum, Stephen W., trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
et al. (forthcoming 2007) A History of the Book Press.
in America, vol. III: The Industrial Book, 1840­ Kelley, Mary (1985) Private Woman, Public Stage;
1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth Century America.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Crouthamel, James L. (1989) Bennett's New York Leonard, Thomas C. (1986) Power of the Press: The
Herald and the Rise of the Popular Press. Syracuse: Birth of American Political Reporting. New York:
Syracuse University Press.
Oxford University Press.
Ellis, Joseph J. (1979) After the Revolution: Profiles of -- (1995) News for All: America's Coming-of-age
Early American Culture. New York: W. W. with the Press. New York: Oxford University
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Robert A. Gross
McGill, Meredith L. (2003) American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1834­1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Mott, Frank Luther (1962) American Journalism: A History, 1690­1960, 3rd edn. New York: Macmillan. Nord, David Paul (2001) Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and their Readers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. -- (2004) Faith in Fiction: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press. Pasley, Jeffrey L. (2001) "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Raven, James (2002) London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748­1811. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Schudson, Michael (1978) Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic. Sheehan, Donald (1952) This Was Publishing: A Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Starr, Paul (2004) The Creation of the Media: Political
Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic. Stewart, Donald Henderson (1969) The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period. Albany: State University of New York Press. Tebbel, John (1972­81) A History of Book Publishing in the United States, 4 vols. New York: R. R. Bowker. Tucher, Andie (1994) Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Warner, Michael (1990) Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Winship, Michael (1995) American Literary Publishing in the Mid-nineteenth Century: The Business of Ticknor and Fields. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zboray, Ronald J. (1993) A Fictive People: Antebellum economic development and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press. -- and Zboray, Mary Saracino (2005) Literary Dollars and Social Sense: A People's History of the Mass Market Book. New York: Routledge.
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